[14 May 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There is a Roman Polanski film from 1967 that is known by two different titles. Those titles are The Dance of the Vampires and The Fearless Vampire Killers, Or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. And for reasons unknown to me, the Krzysztof Komeda soundtrack for this film was not available on vinyl until 47 years after its theatrical release. It’s true that The Dance of the Vampires (this is the title I will use from now on) hasn’t turned out to be one of the most prominent works for either Polanski’s or Komeda’s careers, but people bought far lesser stuff on vinyl back in the ‘60s… didn’t they? My late father’s record collection can be exhibit A for that.
Let’s ignore all of that. The score for The Dance of the Vampires probably sounded just as strange in 1967 as it does today. The film was marketed as a horror farce, but it sounds like Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda had slightly different thoughts in mind. The score is not completely macabre nor is it completely tongue-in-cheek. Instead it inhabits this weird space in between that draws on both traits at the same time. It’s eerie but not frightening, legitimate but not serious. And some of its main themes ride upon instrumentation that could strike listeners today as almost alien. Harpsichord and upright bass with wordless incantations from a wavering choir sitting just a few tracks away from strings and woodwinds and drum-backed kitsch reminiscent of Rocky Horror—it begs the questions “Is this a joke?” and “Are you trying to freak me out?” simultaneously. It sounds slightly dated, but not in the ways one would think.
With 19 tracks clocking in at just a hair over thirty minutes, The Dance of the Vampires is not a large score. Shortening it even more is the fact that many of the themes are repeated with sometimes very little variation. For instance, the “Main Title” at the start is almost identical to the closing number “Herbert’s Song” (the latter is longer by about two minutes). The slowed minor key vibratos of the choir are the driving force on these two tracks, using the harpsichord as a piece of archaic window-dressing. “Sarah in Bath” is an acappella “Snowman” sped up to a moderate tempo. And “Snowman” is a guitar and oboe waltz that mutates into a minor-key chant for “Koukol Laughs”. Then it goes back to being “Snowman” for the start of “Sarah’s Song”. “Sarah Asks for a Bath - Love Tune”, which appropriates the opening theme, is probably the least romantic twenty-two seconds of the program. Between these numbers are incidental cues that visually set scenes (as they should).
And speaking of which, this is not one of those soundtracks that can easily enjoy a life outside of its context. To listen to it is to constantly wonder “What the hell kind of movie is this, anyway?” The easy way out is to say that It’s a unique score for a unique movie. The cinematic and musical experience of The Dance of the Vampires is weirder than just saying it’s “unique”. Being one-of-a-kind is a double-edged sword, and Komeda took that mixed-blessing all of the way to blood bank.
Wow. I’m very sorry I did that. I blame this music.